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5 December 2018

Malachy Tallack’s The Valley at the Centre of the World: an authentic novel of island life

Having lived in Fair Isle, the most remote inhabited island in Britain, and edited the magazine Shetland Life, Tallack understands islands.

By Benjamin Myers

In May 2017 the Icelandic writer Sjón gathered scribes and academics from across the world to Tórshavn in (islanders favour “in” rather than “on”) the Faroe Islands for a conference named “The Tower at the End of the World”. They had one thing in common – they were all islanders, from Cape Verde to Crete and Jamaica to Japan, all creating work preoccupied with places where the only barrier is the sea. This summit took its name from the Faroese writer William Heinesen’s 1976 novel The Tower at the Edge of the World, which, as the conference notes stated, “found in his sea-locked microcosmos of a town a platform for a string of novels and short stories that resonate with people from all around the globe”.

The Scottish writer Malachy Tallack would surely have been at home here, not least because the title and overall theme of Heinesen’s novel (to see William Blake’s “world in a grain of sand”) echoes throughout his debut novel The Valley at the Centre of the World. Having lived in Fair Isle – halfway between Shetland and Orkney, it’s the most remote inhabited island in Britain – and edited the magazine Shetland Life, he understands islands. He has also published a travel-memoir, Sixty Degrees North, in which he followed the 60th parallel line that passes through Shetland, and The Un-Discovered Islands, a lavishly illustrated cataloguing of an archipelago of places that have existed only as myths, phantoms or islands that have simply disappeared.

The Valley at the Centre of the World is a book about life in Shetland in the 21st century. At its core are the challenges for those attempting to continue the crofting culture in the face of globalisation. Tallack gathers a cast of characters into a small valley, a world within a world, where each acts as a cipher for the different social strands which, when woven together, constitute a modern community.

Alice, a writer, is the outsider who embarks upon researching a history of the valley in an effort to rebuild her life, following the death of her young husband. In Shetland she identifies a place that can be known and contained in words, “not just as it once was, or believed to be, but as it is here, now”. Old-timer David might disagree; he is the patriarchal figure working the land just as his ancestors did, his thoughts shaped by the valley. David believes that “life would be so much simpler if people dreamed only of one place”, though he is not so entrenched that he doesn’t recognise a growing necessity for new blood, young families and the passing on of skills, history and language.

Indeed, Tallack uses a Shetland dialect known as Shaetlan (or Shetlandic) in the phonetically replicated dialogue of his characters. Though Scottish, it incorporates Norn, the old Norse language of Orkney and Shetland, which became extinct in the 18th century. In Shaetlan, “tomorrow” becomes damoarn, fantin is “starving”, caddy a hand-reared lamb and so forth: “Is du ready ta get clerty daday?” David asks, before tackling a drainage problem. It works, adding an insider’s authenticity and richness to the slow-burning story that in places recalls the great chronicler of Orcadian life and character George Mackay Brown.

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Tallack’s descriptions of sheep farming and the unforgiving elements are particularly powerful. They are often seen through the eyes of Sandy, the young male crofter upon whose shoulders the future of the valley is gently placed by David – whose daughter Sandy has also recently split from. In this transference of hope lies the possibility of a future for the old ways. Subplots develop at their own gentle pace – the appearance of townies Ryan and Jo, taking advantage of David’s cheap rent, is disruptive – but this is a novel less concerned with literary redemption than the passing of time and the peeling back of layers. It is about the social codes that must be quietly observed – of tea and biscuits, drinking sessions and everyone mucking in when needed, or retreating behind closed doors and minding their own business when not.

The “fabric of society” is a cliché, but here it feels real in the things said and unsaid, in the islanders’ reliance upon one another, in the security and comfort of home. When Alice discovers the diaries of the recently deceased 88-year-old islander Maggie, she sees the possibility of a new literary venture, only to discover that all Maggie recorded were dull details about wood, food and weather. Surely, Alice wonders, that couldn’t be all there was to her life? “Mebbie it wis,” counters David. “Dat’s whit wis important tae her.”

In such observations, Tallack shows us the past and future colliding in the present, and illustrates the difficulty of maintaining a culture in a world that is shrinking. The Valley at the Centre of the World is a thoughtful, engaging and valuable addition to the literature of islands. It’s difficult to read it and not think of Britain as a whole, an island currently engaged in an ugly push and pull between those who look inwards and those with their telescopes trained beyond the horizon. 

The Valley at the Centre of the World
Malachy Tallack
Canongate, 337pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special